Book Notes: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain

This is a classic of American literature that I read for my book club. Baldwin is extremely talented, and this is a great, great novel. I don’t think it’s possible fully to appreciate it or even understand it if you aren’t a very religious Christian. This is African American literature of the early 1950s, and the novel is set in the 1930s, so of course, religion is everything.

I grew up in an atheist country, and I feel a huge, gaping hole inside myself and my culture in the place where the characters in Baldwin’s novel have religion. It’s something so central to American culture, and eradicating it isn’t going to lead to a nice place. The characters in the novel suffer but they live. The only character who has no faith and despises Christianity kills himself because there’s nothing for him in the world.

The characters in the novel are Pentecostal, which is obviously extremely different – much more exuberant and outwardly oriented – than Orthodox Christianity. I’m not into it but it’s described so beautifully in the book that it’s impossible not to feel attracted to it.

6 thoughts on “Book Notes: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain

  1. My time staying with friends in Viet Nam was revelatory in this way. I grew up in the US, and yeah, religion is there, but… small-town life with my Catholic friends was religion on a whole different level: the center of everything. I never understood church bells before that. The church bells rang at 4am, in the dark– it is the whole town’s alarm clock. Everybody gets up then, dresses, and then heads out to daily mass– a few bobbing flashlights and the shuffle of dozens of sandals on the sandy road, all around. I’ve never encountered anything comparable in the US. Just by getting in the car to go to the church, you lose something intense.

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  2. // I don’t think it’s possible fully to appreciate it or even understand it if you aren’t a very religious Christian.

    I studied this novel in one of English literature courses at Tel-Aviv university.

    Neither the professor nor any students were Christians, let alone very religious ones.

    Don’t know whether we understood the most of it, it was years ago.

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    1. The only person at the book club yesterday who said he just couldn’t get it is a practicing Jew. I felt the same way when I read a novel by an Orthodox Jewish author. I just didn’t get what it was all about.

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  3. “more exuberant and outwardly oriented – than Orthodox Christianity. I’m not into it”

    As non-religious as I am, I’ve loved African American gospel music since high school days (and going to sleep listening to a gospel broadcast).

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